Trax Records Hit With Federal Copyright Infringement Lawsuit Over Royalties

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TRAX Records

Larry Heard and Robert Owens are suing Trax for damages that they expect to exceed $1 million.

Chicago-based Trax Records has been sued over its alleged failure to pay royalties.

Artists Larry Heard and Robert Owens filed a federal copyright infringement lawsuit June 23 against Trax Records. Two days later, TaP Music Publishing announced that they are co-funding the legal action.

Heard, professionally known as “Mr Fingers” and Owens said in court papers filed in the Northern District of Illinois that their lawsuit highlights the exploitation of the artists and their works, including unpaid royalties for various musical compositions and sound recordings that they created in the 1980s.

Heard and Owens are also suing the Trax Records president Rachael Cain, known professionally as “Screamin’ Rachael.”

They accuse Trax of “building its catalogue by taking advantage of unsophisticated but creative house-music artists and songwriters by having them sign away their copyrights to their musical works for paltry amounts of money up front and promises of continued royalties throughout the life of the copyright,” according to their complaint.

They are suing Trax for damages that they expect to exceed $1 million.

Heard created works such as known for his songs “Washing Machine,” “Can You Feel It,” “Beyond the Clouds,” “Donnie,” and Distant Planet. Owens co-wrote several songs including “Bring Down the Walls,” “Never No More Lonely” and “Bye-Bye” but they claim they were never properly compensated for their musical labor by Trax Records.

Owens and Heard included copyright documents in their lawsuit that they said shows that their songs were also registered to Trax as the copyright holder. For many of the songs, they said they have not received accounting or payment from Trax.

“Talented, but unrepresented, musicians hungry for their first break were lulled into a business relationship with an unscrupulous record company that made promises it never intended to keep and masqueraded as paternalistic benefactors for those artists - like a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” according to the complaint.

TaP Music Co-Head Ben Mawson said they decided to partially fund this lawsuit because they are passionate about electronic music. Mawson says in a statement provided to Billboard that, “We are delighted to be able to support their claim against Trax Records who have behaved abominably over the years to many artists signed to them. We would ask any such affected artists to reach out to us and we will endeavour to support them however we can. Hopefully those in control at Trax now decide to do the right thing, after many years of shocking disregard for their artists.”

Larry Heard issued the following statement regarding his lawsuit against Trax. “After doing several releases independently, it was so disappointing that my earliest ventures into the music business was with a label in the community that turned out to be dishonest, like with many other artists that we hear about all too often. We are simply seeking justice and fairness. Maybe," Heard continues, "our efforts will shed light on the many predatory practices that have been in place for a long time in this industry.”

However, Rick Darke of Duane Morris LLP, attorney for Trax president Cain, responded to the lawsuit by saying she had been fighting for 15 years to get artists like Heard and Owen royalties, citing a long legal dispute with a Canadian investor, Casablanca Trax Inc. Casablanca obtained the rights and licenses to music from artists like Heard, and later transferred the rights to another entity. Though Cain has since prevailed on appeal, the parties responsible have not paid up, Darke said.

"Rachael Cain has been fighting for a long time to get these artists paid," Darke continued. "She just hasn't received the monies from the parties responsible in order to pay them."

Adds Cain, "Since the very beginning I have been championing House music, Trax Records and our artists. As an artist myself I can totally understand and feel their frustration. Since 2002 Trax Records has had no control over the Trax classic catalogue which we intend to rectify. I would like them to know I have not been in control of the classics and have been fighting to get them paid."

Robert Meloni, litigator at Meloni & McCaffrey chimes in: “During my 40 years of practicing law in the music business, it was not all that uncommon to see record labels failing to honor their agreements with artists, particularly African-American artists." He continues, "Larry Heard and Robert Owens have filed this lawsuit to begin the process of righting the wrongs they suffered, our hope is that it may inspire other similarly situated African-Americans to stand up for their rights as well.”

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